Public Wi-Fi networks are available just about everywhere – at airports, bus stops, parks, and cafés. These are readily accessible and quite often, they’re not even password-protected.
While public Wi-Fi networks offer a lot of conveniences, they also bring some risks to the table.
Why Using Public Wireless Networks Can Be Dangerous
Because they’re open to the public, many wireless networks feature minimal protection. Hackers love such opportunities due to easy access.
Statistics show that 24.7 percent of the public wireless networks across the world do not use any encryption at all. Of those encrypted, many rely on outdated protocols.
At the same time, people remain generally unaware of the risks. A recent survey suggests that over 50 percent of the respondents logged into their email or a personal social media account via a public network. Of the people questioned, 61 percent said they believed that their information was safe.
Why is the use of a public wireless network risky? Here are the main reasons:
- Unencrypted and unsecured data, which increases the risk of man in the middle (MITM) attacks
- There’s no information about the legitimacy of the network, you could be connecting to a rogue hotspot set up for the purpose of hack attacks and data theft
- The tools needed to breach a public wireless network are often easily accessible, which can turn anyone into a hacker (according to a report by Europol)
- There’s a risk of malware infections
- Simple software can be used to spy on all activities that take place within a wireless network (browsing, communication, shopping, online banking, chat histories, etc.)
Ways to Protect Yourself
While you should be aware of the dangers, there are still ways to use public Wi-Fi networks in a safe way.
The first thing to do is to avoid networks that aren’t password-protected. Once you’re done with using the internet, log off and disconnect from the network altogether.
Using a public wireless network to browse favorite websites and do a bit of research is fine. You should, however, avoid logging into online profiles, doing online shopping or going into your online bank account.
Other security measures worth exploring include enabling your device’s firewall and disabling file sharing. When using websites, look at the address bar for https. This means that SSL encryption applies to the specific website and is active. Such websites are more secure and you can rest assured that the interaction is at least somewhat protected.
Using a virtual private network (VPN) is another way to protect yourself. VPNs encrypt the data sent over the Wi-Fi network. Even if a hacker positions themselves to access such information, it will not come in a readily available format.
Finally, disable automatic connection to a wireless network and make sure that your anti-virus software is up to date.
It’s never a good idea to assume that a public Wi-Fi network is safe. Modifying your behavior to circumvent risks and relying on the right safety solutions (a VPN, anti-virus software) can help you rest assured that your sensitive data isn’t vulnerable.
Eric Silver at CloudWedge.com is a veteran technology blogger and startup enthusiast who has been covering the global technology scene since the most advanced phones were still folding in half.